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REDD+ and carbon markets: Ten Myths Exploded

In June 2011, FERN, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation UK produced a report which counters some of the misconceptions about the suitability of carbon markets to finance forest protection.

The report, titled, “REDD+ and carbon markets: Ten Myths Exploded”, was produced in part as a response to a submission to the UNFCCC produced in February 2011 by a group consisting mainly of big US-based conservation NGOs (BINGOs). The BINGO’s submission argues in favour of using markets to finance REDD+.

The organisations that signed the submission to the UNFCCC are Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Rainforest Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, Union of Concerned Scientists, Wildlife Conservation Society and World Vision International. Their statement is available here: “Views on new market-based mechanisms Using markets for the full implementation of REDD+” (pdf file 125.3 kB).

FERN, FoE, Greenpeace and RFUK [*] respond by examining 10 of the arguments in favour of carbon trading, to “challenge the assumption that it is a useful and cost-effective way of mitigating climate change”. The report analyses these arguments in turn and explains how each is flawed. For example, the argument that offsets are a cheap way of reducing emissions is countered as follows:

REDD+ as an offset mechanism does not reduce emissions, it merely moves them from one place to another. Therefore it cannot help stabilise greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations on the scale or at the speed necessary to prevent runaway climate change. REDD+ can only contribute towards combating climate change if it is not financed through offsets.

In this post, however, I’m more interested in why the BINGOs argue in favour of carbon trading, as opposed to what they argue. For this, we need to refer to the work of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt.

In their response, FERN, FoE, Greenpeace and RFUK describe the arguments in favour of carbon trading as “myths”. The word “myth” is not bad as a way of describing the arguments put forward in favour of carbon trading, in the sense that a myth is a “fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology”. However, a better word might be “bullshit”, as defined by Frankfurt in his 1986 essay, “On Bullshit”.

Frankfurt explains that bullshit is not the same as lying. He concludes in his essay that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”. This is because the liar is concerned about the truth, even if only in order to conceal it. To the bullshitter, the truth is irrelevant. Bullshit can either be true or false. Its purpose is purely to promote the bullshitter’s agenda.

In his essay, Frankfurt writes that,

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

In an interview in January 2005, Frankfurt was asked, “What is bullshit?”. He responded as follows:

“It consists in a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity. The motivation of the bullshitter is not to say things that are true or even to say things that are false, but serving some other purpose. And the question of whether what he says is true or false is irrelevant to his pursuit of that ambition. The bullshitter is not necessarily a liar….
“Bullshit is somehow a more insidious threat to the values that I’m concerned with than lying is, because the liar knows what the truth is and he’s concerned with trying to keep people away from the truth. This in itself shows a certain respect for the value of truth and the importance of truth. Whereas the bullshitter doesn’t care at all. So his stance is a greater threat to respect and concern for the truth than the liar’s is. The liar wants to substitute for the truth something that he knows or believes to be false. So the difference between truth and falsehood is very important to him, whereas to the bullshitter it’s not important at all. That’s why I think that there’s a more insidious threat to concern and respect for truth in bullshit than in lying.”

This, I think, is a useful description of the way proponents of carbon trading discuss carbon trading. They are not interested in establishing truth or falsity, instead they are interested in the pursuit of their ambition.

In this case, the BINGO’s ambition is to promote their own interests. Their interests are a model of conservation that requires large sums of money (for the BINGOs), through which they can control and manage vast areas of tropical forests. Carbon trading provides a means of accessing this money. Whether the money comes from massively polluting corporations is irrelevant to them, as is the question of whether carbon trading will address runaway climate change. So, for example, when challenged at a side event in Bonn in 2009, about the importance of reducing emissions from fossil fuels through meaningful targets in the USA, The Nature Conservancy’s Duncan Marsh simply shrugged off the question.

Here’s how Frankfurt explains why there is so much bullshit around these days:

“The increase in the amount of bullshit in contemporary life as compared with, say 100 years ago, is because of the intensity of the marketing motive in contemporary society. We are constantly marketing things, selling products, selling people, selling candidates, selling programmes, selling policies and once you start out by supposing that your object is to sell something then your object is not to tell the truth about it but to get people to believe what you want them to believe about it. And so this encourages a resort to bullshit.”

None of this is to criticise the “REDD+ and carbon markets: Ten Myths Exploded”, report by FERN, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Rainforest Foundation UK. The report is well written and presents a series of strong arguments against trading forest carbon. It is highly recommended reading. But the report does not explain why the BINGOs put forward the arguments they do. For that, we need to turn to Harry Frankfurt’s analysis. The BINGOs are selling carbon trading as a policy, because of the benefits they stand to gain as a result.

Full disclosure: FERN and RFUK have funded REDD-Monitor. For a full list of organisations that have funded REDD-Monitor, see “About REDD-Monitor”.

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  1. Far out, this little musing on lying and bullshit is so applicable to the current NGO advertising blitz to back the proposed emissions trading scheme in Australia.

    The campaign is called “Say Yes” – designed by advertising company Republic of Everyone – spending millions on print and TV advertising that actually says nothing about emissions trading or climate change – it’s just this wash of “positive messaging”, and devoid of actual facts / often quite (but still quietly) misleading.

    Frankfurt is spot on here: “once you start out by supposing that your object is to sell something then your object is not to tell the truth about it but to get people to believe what you want them to believe about it.”

    And of course, there’s no mention of the huge amount of offsets the scheme will allow – the “Say Yes” website

  2. True. The carbon maths do not stack up. But I see no maths in the report. One can do it on the back of a napkin.

    Tying to find anyone in this scene (climate negotiators, greens etc) that actually understands the basic maths is close to impossible.

  3. @michael casey – Thanks for this. Maths never was one of my strong points. Apparently it is one of yours. Could you do me a favour, please and do the maths on the back of a napkin, scan it and send it to reddmonitor (at) gmail (dot) com – along with an explanation. Thanks!

  4. BINGO is the commonly accepted acronym, particularly in relation to the climate change negotiations, for Business and Industry Non-Government Organisation. It is also sometimes used for Big International Non-Government Organisations. Neither of these applies specifically to the organisations you have criticised for “bullshitting” and characterised as worse than liars. Not sure if the misuse of the acronym was Freudian or just perjorative. These ENGOs do some great conservation work WITH local communities and forest dwellers, and in my experience do not have some collective mania to control vast swathes of the world.
    I once asked Patrick Moore how it felt to rat on his mates. Same question to you. Your post reminds me of a Murdoch Press editorial in its blatant partisanship. Now I must read the two publications.

  5. @Mark Jackson

    Most of us probably appreciate your personal interests – as Managing Director of (REDD) carbon trading company, Carbon Conservation – but what exactly are your credentials for expounding on the worthiness, or otherwise, of the BINGOs?

    Some of us have had decades of watching them as they have progressively and simultaneously lost their integrity and gained a lot more power. You seem to miss the obvious comparison that what the likes of CI, EDF, TNC and Rainforest Alliance have done has been precisely like doing, collectively and corporately, what Patrick Moore did – i.e, “rat on his mates”, by betraying the environmental movement.

    ‘Maniacal world-dominating bullshitters’ would seem to summon them up perfectly well…

  6. @ C Witness – to clarify, I am NOT managing director of Carbon Conservation. I was managing director of The Carbon Pool Pty Ltd and in that capacity did what I think was the world’s first avoided deforestation project to be accounted against a national baseline, and in the process stopped 12,000 hectares of Australian woodland from being bulldozed and burnt. We (unfortunately) let the company be acquired by Carbon Conservation. I bailed some months later after seeing more of how they operated. Anyway, thanks for the casual slur.
    I have worked closely with WCS in Indonesia, and been deeply involved in forest conservation and reforestation for around forty years, including looking at REDD+ demonstration initiatives from a range of the organisations you characterise as basically evil. I don’t see an organised agenda to dominate and control forest land beyond saving biodiversity. And being staffed by pragmatic and largely humane people the organisations tend to recognise the necessity of working WITH local communities.
    I just read the 10 Myths report. I thought it rang some useful alarm bells, but aso contained some significant myths and deceptions of its own. I would have called it spin rather than bullshit but whatever. Once you have an agenda the truth tends to fit! Whether you are corrupt and powerful or pure and impotent or somewhere in between.

  7. @Mark Jackson – Could you please explain exactly where you believe that the 10 Myths report contains “significant myths and deceptions of its own”?

    I think you’re getting the hang of Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit. “Spin” and “bullshit” are pretty much the same thing. Someone hired by a politician or company to put a positive spin on their actions is not remotely interested in the truth. They are interested only in making their clients look good.

    You’re right that many of the people working for the BINGOs are pragmatic and humane. That’s not really the point though. A couple of books highlight the issues well, which are institutional:

    Mark Dowie, “Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples”, MIT Press, 2009.

    Christine MacDonald, “Green, Inc. An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad”, The Lyons Press, 2008.

  8. @ Chris – Bottom of page 4. The report blames the low uptake of forestry projects under the CDM on a long wait for uncertain environmental benefits. The reason for the low uptake is the issue by the CDMEB of expiring credits with low market value, and the long wait which occurred for the CDM institutional structures and methodology approvals to be put in place for A&R. These impediments were largely an outcome of the intense negativity about “carbon sinks” of the international ENGOs (particularly Greenpeace) and (somewhat under their influence) the European negotiators.
    Bottom of page 2 – costs of MRV. The statement is made that the costs of MRV-ing forest carbon have not been reliably quantified, but the paragraph goes on to say they are unlikely to fall below the current price (13 euros) or even the historical high price (30 euros). The apparent referencing actually only refers to MRV being an acronym and the carbon prices being from pointcarbon. This unsupported assertion is in most cases … wait for it…bullshit!
    More generally the assertion that offsets do not reduce emissions is only true if the existence of offsets does not influence the setting of emission limitation and reduction commitments. This is also bullshit. Negotiators from all countries want to know the rules on LULUCF and the CDM and trading mechanisms before they commit to to individual national emission reduction targets. For example, Australia only agreed to its Kyoto target when it knew it could count on reductions in land clearing to deliver its target. Yes I know this is cynical crap but it is an example of real world behaviour of self-interested national governments. The point is that having REDD in the mix is likely to lead to higher reduction targets being set than would otherwise be the case.
    Page 8 – Statement is made that REDD has no credibility because of international leakage. International leakage applies across all sectors to the extent that some nations price carbon and others don’t. Polluting industries will tend to move to where they can pollute freely. It is wrong to single out REDD.
    Etc etc.

  9. @Mark Jackson – Thanks for this comment. You found four examples of what you describe as “significant myths and deceptions” in the 10 Myths report. I’ll deal with each one in turn:

    1. “The report blames the low uptake of forestry projects under the CDM on a long wait for uncertain environmental benefits.

    No it doesn’t. The report argues that “Sectors that are likely to deliver benefits only in the long term, or where the benefits are more uncertain (such as forestry projects or avoiding deforestation), are less competitive than others.” The CDM provides evidence for this statement.

    The report mentions the failure of forestry projects to gain significant uptake in the CDM. In a footnote, the authors note that “Afforestation and reforestation represent less than 1% of total CDM (Clean development Mechanism) projects, with no CERs (Certified Emission Reductions) yet issued.” Meanwhile, HFC, PFC and N2O projects account for 2.0% of the projects but represent 27% of the CERs by 2012.

    Not an impressive performance is it?

    This argument is in response to the Myth that “REDD+ is particularly well positioned to benefit from the policy shift from ‘project’ to ‘sector wide’ trading, given the suitability of forestry as a sector-wide mitigation effort.” The reality is that REDD+ is more controversial than afforestation and reforestation under the CDM – and likely to face even more serious problems in generating carbon credits.

    2. “costs of MRV.

    Would you agree with this statement? “The costs of ‘MRV-ing’ forest carbon to the degree of accuracy required for carbon trading have not yet been reliably determined.” If not, could you please provide links to reliable estimates of the costs of “MRV-ing” forest carbon. The point being made here is that in order to trade forest carbon you need to have an accurate measurement of how much carbon is stored in the forest (as well as an accurate measurement of how much carbon would have been emitted in the absence of the REDD project that led to the avoided deforestation). And the cost of accurately measuring forest carbon is high, whereas guessing the amount of carbon stored in a forest is relatively cheap.

    If there is no reliable estimate of the costs of “MRV-ing” forest carbon, I agree that we can only guess whether it will be covered by the price of carbon (whether that price is €13 or €30 or even €130 – although obviously the higher the price of carbon, the more likely that accurate “MRV-ing” could be afforded).

    3. “the assertion that offsets do not reduce emissions is only true if the existence of offsets does not influence the setting of emission limitation and reduction commitments

    This is fascinating. There is no evidence that carbon trading has led to higher emission reductions targets. Yet proponents of carbon trading keep bringing up this argument, as if repeating it will somehow magically make it happen in the future.

    Unfortunately, the reality is that while we have carbon trading (through the CDM) we do not have meaningful commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The Kyoto targets are pitifully low. Carbon trading provides a loophole in these pitifully low targets. In 1997 in Kyoto, the US negotiating team (led by Al Gore) pushed for both lower targets (the EU wanted a target of 15% reductions by 2010 – the US drove them down to 5.2% by 2012) and for carbon trading.

    I’m glad you mentioned Australia’s agreement to the Kyoto “target”. As Andrew Macintosh, Associate Director of the Australia National University’s Centre for Climate Law and Policy, points out Australia is the only developed country that was allowed to rely on reduced deforestation emissions as the primary way of meeting its quantified emission reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol. Under the deal agreed in Kyoto, Australia was allowed to increase its emissions by 8% against its emissions in 1990. And Australia was allowed to count any reductions in emissions from deforestation against a baseline of 1990 against its “target”. (You can read more about this here: “Australia’s big REDD carbon scam“.)

    There is little chance of meaningful targets being agreed in Durban at this year’s COP. Having REDD in the mix at Durban is only likely to be used as a fig leaf for having made no progress at all on reducing emissions from fossil fuels.

    4. “Leakage

    If Vietnam, say, develops a REDD programme and claims to have reduced its emissions from deforestation are you seriously arguing that we should not talk about leakage when Vietnamese loggers continue to operate in Laos and illegally export timber to a booming wooden furniture industry in Vietnam, because polluting industries move to where they can pollute freely?

    Actually, the point that the 10 Myths report is making is that the issues of additionality, non-permanence and leakage have not been addressed. You’ve done nothing to reassure me that these issues have in fact been addressed. As the report points out, the issue of leakage cannot be addressed unless the issue of (over)consumption of timber products is addressed along with the demand for ever larger areas of agricultural land.

  10. Hi Chris
    In terms of the specific points about the 10 Myths report I am happy for you to have the last word, although I still don’t agree. In the unlikely event that anyone else is following this discussion they can make up their own mind. My real point is that these matters are arguable, not a case of enlighted green crusader/savants taking on the evil and corrupt running dogs of capitalist environmental pillagers. There are plenty of valid positions to take in the spectrum between pure idealism and pure pragmatism, and very little value in chauvinistic dismissal of others’ views. Cheers

  11. @ Mark Jackson ,
    Are you able to be arguable with the environmenal truth?